Donald Trump’s acquittal in his impeachment trial is all but a sure thing.
What’s still unsettled is how the Republican senators seeking to take his place in the 2024 presidential primary will navigate the minefield before the verdict is official.
Torn between demands of the GOP’s pro-Trump base and traditionalists mortified by Trump’s post-election behavior, senators like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton will be forced to strike a balance. That means calibrating their defense of Trump for a primary electorate whose level of devotion to the former president three years from now remains unknown.
Their effort will be complicated by one obsessive viewer, in particular: Trump, with his hair-trigger sensitivity to criticism and a political operation that has already threatened to punish Republicans who suggest he has any culpability whatsoever in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot that led to his second impeachment.
“I think most of them are going to do everything they can to avoid having to comment,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican consultant who has worked on nine presidential campaigns, including Sen. Lindsey Graham’s in 2016. “I think the Republican Party is still trying to figure out how do we navigate a post-Trump world where we appeal to Trump voters and the Trump coalition but don’t turn off suburban voters. And I don’t think anyone’s come up with that formula yet.”
At least half a dozen senators — and perhaps more — could credibly be considered potential presidential candidates in 2024. And though nearly every one of them is expected to vote to acquit Trump, the strategic approach they take to his trial will offer the clearest window yet into their assessment of the GOP’s post-Trump landscape — and how they plan to maneuver within it.
There’s broad consensus among Republican strategists about one thing: the trial is politically disadvantageous for the Senate’s 2024 contenders, distracting from hearings in which senators can object without reservation to President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees — something with near-universal GOP appeal.
Defending Trump is a trickier endeavor. And the procedural rules of impeachment don’t help. Senate rules severely limit senators’ ability to speak during the trial itself, relegating on-camera appearances primarily to the Capitol hallways and TV cameras on the periphery. Those venues are less script-able than delivering prepared remarks in a committee hearing or on the Senate floor, leaving more room for error.
Republican senators are expected to refrain as much as possible from defending Trump’s behavior ahead of the riot at the Capitol, instead arguing — as they have for weeks — that it’s unconstitutional to impeach a former president. Beyond that, they’ve signaled an effort to turn the focus back on Democrats, arguing that Democrats tolerate incendiary rhetoric when it’s in the service of their own causes.
“For the Republicans who want to be president, they’re going to have to make their mark somehow as standing with Donald Trump on due process and fairness grounds,” said Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist and former deputy attorney general of Ohio. “Few of them will want to do a full-throated defense of everything Donald Trump said and did, which means the safest path is to point out that this is really a political stunt by the Democrats … You want to move from defense to offense.”
If Republicans follow that thinking, it will align them with the what-about-ism advanced by Trump’s own legal team. Trump’s lead attorney, Bruce Castor, said Friday that “there’s a lot of tape of cities burning and courthouses being attacked and federal agents being assaulted by rioters in the streets, cheered on by Democrats throughout the country.”
Cruz telegraphed the same approach, calling impeachment a process driven by “partisan rage,” in contrast with Biden’s post-election calls for unity.
“The Democrats are demonstrating a lot of hypocrisy right now,” the Texas senator said.
In a 2024 primary in which Republicans will be running against one another, not Democrats, the Senate trial is an opportunity to reinforce marginal fault lines among them. That’s because in nominating politics, even small segments of turf can be critical, and opportunities for would-be candidates to corner them rare.
By leading the opposition to the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory, Cruz and Hawley embraced the pro-Trump primary lane more completely than any other potential candidates. Staking out a middle ground, Cotton, of Arkansas, broke with Cruz and Hawley, making a constitutional argument for the election’s certification before, in turn, making the constitutional argument against impeachment.
“You’re going to certainly see the candidates — or the senators who are trying to be candidates — try to stake out some ground,” said Lanhee Chen, a top adviser on Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, describing a likely range of responses from those who are “aggressively supportive of the president to those who will be supportive, but with caveats perhaps, to those who will be more outright in their opposition to him if they believe there will be that lane in 2024.”
Beyond other senators — and numerous other Republican contenders — there’s still the former president himself to worry about. A senator who calculates that Trump may run again in 2024 may approach the impeachment proceedings differently than one who thinks he won’t.
“If you’re looking at this through the lens of 2024, you basically have two choices for how you deal with this,” said Kevin Madden, a former Romney adviser. “You either think [Trump’s] going to run, and at some point you have to confront him. And in that case they’re going to ask themselves, ‘Do I pick that fight now with impeachment, or do I pick that fight later on?’”
Madden said, “If you think he isn’t going to run and you want his blessing and the energy of the Trump-dedicated voter, I think you’re more likely to just … stick to the arguments that 85 percent of the Republican base agrees with, which is impeaching a president already out of office is a useless exercise, the process is rushed, and then throw in a heavy dose of what-about-ism toward the Democrats.”
It’s almost certain that Democrats will not find the 17 Republican votes necessary to convict Trump, after all but five Republican senators — Ben Sasse, Romney, Pat Toomey, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski — voted to declare the impeachment trial unconstitutional.
The fear for Republicans is if Trump’s team strays from its constitutionality defense, instead re-litigating Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen from him or arguing his behavior ahead of the riot was wholly appropriate.
Even for the senators who have embraced Trump most fulsomely, Heckman said, “If I were advising them, I would say, ‘Stay in the pack.’ I just don’t know how you win on this … It will certainly be interesting to see if anybody will make the argument that Trump didn’t do anything wrong. That’s a guy who becomes a hero in the Trump coalition, but I don’t know how you expand it beyond that.”
Sasse, a Trump critic, has not said how he’ll vote on impeachment. But he unequivocally blamed Trump for the deadly riot at the Capitol, enraging GOP activists in his home state. And he appears unlikely to back down. Sasse released a video last week lacing into what he called a brand of politics driven by “the weird worship of one dude.”
For Sasse, a vote to convict could further solidify his position in the anti-Trump lane — with the possibility that he could be rewarded politically if the GOP electorate becomes less beholden to Trump by 2024.
But for everyone else, the political calculus points plainly to a vote to acquit.
Between the House and Senate, said Curt Anderson, a top adviser to Florida Sen. Rick Scott, another prospective 2024 candidate, about five percent of all GOPers are likely to vote to impeach Trump.
“Anyone considering running for president will be in the other 95%,” he wrote in an email. “Because this is unconstitutional, political theater, and the case is silly and flimsy.”
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